The spoils of war

Oct 03, 2005 02:00 AM

by Lutz Kleveman

Years of work in battle zones have convinced Lutz Kleveman that the role energy resources play in causing conflicts is the big story behind the headlines.

About three years ago, I visited the American airbase of Bagram in Afghanistan. A US army public affairs officer gave me a tour of the sprawling camp, set up after the ouster of the Taliban in December 2001. As we walked past the endless rows of tents and men in desert camouflage uniforms, I spotted two makeshift wooden street signs.
They read "Exxon Street" and "Petro Boulevard". Slightly embarrassed, the officer explained: "This is the fuel handlers' workplace. The signs are a joke, a sort of irony."

As I am sure they were. It just seemed an uncanny sight given that I was researching potential links between the "war on terror" and American oil interests in Central Asia. Years of work in war zones have convinced me that the role energy resources play in causing armed conflicts is the big story behind the headlines. Dwindling supplies and the ever-surging global consumption of oil, especially in China and India, have caused its price to soar to new heights.
As doubts grow about the true size of Saudi reserves, global production is expected to peak soon, making oil unaffordable to many people and countries, and raising the prospect of a "last man standing" oil endgame.

The deepening rivalry over fossil reserves, especially between the US and China, makes energy wars increasingly likely. No Iraqi I know believes America would send soldiers to the Gulf region if there were only strawberry fields to protect.
My research in places such as Nigeria, Azerbaijan and Iraq has shown that oil wealth is more of a curse than a blessing. In all oil-producing countries (except Britain and Norway), it has led to environmental degradation, economic decline, corruption, political instability, coup d'etats or even civil wars.

Central Asia offers a perfect case study of what is the trouble with oil. The warlords, diplomats, politicians, generals and oil bosses I have interviewed in the region are all players in a geostrategic struggle that has become increasingly intertwined with the anti-terrorist campaigns: the "New Great Game". The main spoils in this rerun of the 19th-century "Great Game" are the Caspian oil and gas reserves, the world's biggest untapped fossil fuel resources.
While estimates range widely, the US Energy Department believes that Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan alone could sit on more than 130 bn barrels of crude. Oil giants such as ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and BP have already invested more than $ 40 bn in new production facilities.

In May 2001 Dick Cheney, the US vice-president and ex-CEO of Halliburton (a provider of products and services to the oil and gas industries), recommended in the seminal national energy policy report that "the president make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy", singling out the Caspian Basin as a "rapidly growing new area of supply". Since 11 September, theBush administration has accordingly used the "war on terror" to further American energy interests in Central Asia, deploying thousands of US troops not only in Afghanistan, but also in the newly independent republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia.
By 2010, the US will have to import more than two-thirds of its energy needs, and the Caspian region has become vital to its policy of "diversifying energy supply", designed to wean America off its dependence on the volatile Middle East.

Yet Central Asia is no less volatile than the Middle East, and oil politics are making matters worse. Disputes persist over pipeline routes from the Caspian region to high-sea ports. While Russia promotes crude transport across its territory, China wants to build eastbound pipelines from Kazakhstan, and Iran is offering its pipeline network for exports via the Persian Gulf.
Washington, on the other hand, has championed the $ 3.8 bn Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline through the South Caucasus, which was recently inauguratedamid much pomp. Controversial for environmental and social reasons, the project has also perpetuated instability in the South Caucasus.

With thousands of Russian troops still stationed in Georgia and Armenia, Moscow has for years sought to deter western pipeline investors by fomenting bloody ethnic conflicts near the pipeline route, in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ajaria. In return, the US has despatched 500 elite troops to Georgia.
Moscow and Beijing resent the growing US influence in their energy-rich strategic backyard, and have repeatedly demanded that the Americans pull out.

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has signed new security pacts with the Central Asian rulers and, in 2003, personally opened a new Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan, only 50 km away from a US airbase.
China, in turn, has conducted major military exercises with Central Asian states. In August, China's biggest state-owned oil company bought a major oil producer in Kazakhstan for $ 4,2 bn. The purchase fits in with China's efforts to quench its enormous thirst for oil by intensifying ties to major energy-producing countries and buying a wide array of foreign petrol assets.

Besides raising the spectre of interstate conflict, energy imperialism also exacerbates the terrorist problem. Many Muslims hate America because for decades successive US governments, in a Faustian pact, were indifferent towards how badly the Middle Eastern regimes treated their people -- as long as they kept the oil flowing. In Central Asia, the Bush administration repeats the mistakes that gave rise to Bin Ladenism in the 1980s and 1990s.
Oil-motivated American support for Central Asian autocrats -- such as Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov -- causes more and more of their disgusted subjects to embrace militant Islam and anti-Americanism. The Caspian region may be the next big gas station but, as in the Middle East, there are already a lot of men running around throwing matches.

Ultimately, no matter how many troops are deployed to protect oilfields and pipelines, the oil infrastructure might prove too vulnerable to terrorist attacks such as in Iraq to guarantee a stable supply anyway.
In Iraq, chaos and violence have so far prevented any major oil companies from investing a huge amount in the country's old petrol industry. Efforts by Halliburton and the US army corps of engineers to rehabilitate the oilfields near Kirkuk and Basra have been largely undermined by insurgent attacks on pipelines. To make matters worse, conflicts have broken out between Iraq's Kurds and Arabs over who should control the Kirkuk oilfields.

With so much oil-related trouble looming, old-style policies of yet more fossil fuel production and waste continue in the wrong direction. The only wise strategy is a sustainable alternative energy policy that will steer us into the post-oil era.
Reducing our dependence on oil will go a long way towards "defuelling" terror-breeding regimes and lessening international tension. This policy will require saving energy through more efficient technologies, increasing the role of other energy carriers (including gas but not nuclear power) and introducing next-generation transport fuels on a huge scale.

A new energy policy is badly needed anyway to slow the greenhouse effect and global climate change, which might turn out to be the worst energy-related source of conflict. Hurricane Katrina -- with violence, anarchy and refugees in its wake -- gave merely a foretaste of the suffering that global warming could cause.
That was nature, some say with a shrug, but in fact it was nature on drugs -- and we need a detox soon.

Lutz Kleveman ( is the author of The New Great Game: blood and oil in Central Asia (Atlantic Books,, and the host of an authors' conference on climate change. For more information visit

Source: Armenian News Network/Groong
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